When the Cal Poly men’s soccer team received its at-large bid Monday morning to participate in the NCAA Tournament, first-year head coach Steve Sampson took a moment to let the news sink in.
The Mustangs were midway through a practice session when the selection committee released the 48-team bracket.
Sampson waited briefly before gathering his team, many of them anxious to know if they’d already played their final match in a Cal Poly uniform.
“I’m sorry to inform you,” said Sampson, pausing an extra second, “that you’ve been accepted into the NCAAs.”
The Mustangs (11-4-5) were awarded their third NCAA Tournament berth in school history, and will play the four-time national champion UCLA Bruins at 7 p.m. Thursday inside Drake Stadium. Each time Cal Poly has qualified for the championship tournament it has been paired with UCLA in the first round.
The Bruins (10-8-1) won a 2-1 decision during the first meeting in 1995, and the Mustangs secured the only NCAA Tournament victory in program history against UCLA in 2008. The two programs also met earlier this season in a match Cal Poly led 1-0 at halftime before the Bruins scored four goals in a 27-minute stretch to close out a 4-1 victory.
“Aside from the fact that I think they’re one of the most talented teams in the country, they have a lot of playoff experience,” Sampson said. “I think that is a tremendous plus for them.”
Few programs can match UCLA in terms of postseason experience. The Bruins have played in the NCAA Tournament 33 consecutive seasons and 43 times overall. They reached the championship final a year ago and fell to Virginia on penalty kicks.
Sampson was a member of UCLA’s coaching staff when the school won its first NCAA title in 1985, and the Bruins have since won national championships in 1990, 1997 and 2002.
This year’s version of the Bruins has been one of the highest-scoring teams in the country. UCLA scored 45 goals (2.37 per game) in 19 matches, which is tied for second nationally with a Wake Forest team that earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“They’ve just got a lot of raw talent,” junior defender Kody Wakasa said. “Their defense is basically their offense because they don’t need to defend that well because they always have the ball.”
UCLA is one of three teams in the country with three 20-point scorers during the regular season: sophomores Seyi Adekoya and Abu Danladi, and freshman Jose Hernandez.
Hernandez is having one of the best freshman seasons in program history. A starter in 18 matches, Hernandez scored 11 goals and contributed four assists for a team-high 26 points. The Mexico City native earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors and was one of four Bruins to earn first-team all-conference accolades this fall.
Adekoya scored a Pac-12-leading 12 goals, and Danladi chipped in six goals and 10 assists.
“We have to tactically be very, very intelligent with how we approach this game,” Sampson said. “… In the end, it will come down to who finishes the chances and who takes advantage of the mistakes.”
Cal Poly has been one of the top-scoring teams in the Big West Conference in recent years, thanks in part to its four-person senior class. Two-time Big West Midfielder of the Year Chase Minter scored a team-high seven goals and tied with freshman George Grote for the team lead with six assists.
Three-time all-conference selection Matt Lagrassa chipped in five goals and three assists. Senior defender Kip Colvey and junior Justin Dhillon are tied for third on the team with eight points, coming on three goals and two assists apiece.
“We’ve got to play to our strengths, and we’ve got some offensive talent individually too going forward,” Wakasa said. “I think if we can just concentrate and have a little luck on our side, I think we’ll definitely create chances, it’s just about finishing them at that point.”
Wakasa finished arguably the most significant goal of Cal Poly’s season in mid-October. Tied with rival UC Santa Barbara in the 104th minute, Wakasa headed in a corner kick from junior defender Jack O’Connor for his first career goal against the then-No. 13 Gauchos.
That victory propelled the Mustangs to a second-place finish in the North Division of the Big West standings, and it certainly played a role in Cal Poly being selected for the NCAA Tournament.
In order to win Thursday night and advance to play No. 11-seeded Seattle on Sunday, Sampson said the Mustangs must be “very well organized” defensively and force the host Bruins to play under pressure.
“We have to force them to play without time and space,” Sampson said. “We have to be not only reactive, but when we win possession of the ball, now we have to force them to defend us. That’s really a big part of this.”
Cal Poly men’s soccer
What: NCAA Tournament first round.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Drake Stadium, Los Angeles.
Winner: Plays No. 11 Seattle on Sunday.